JUBA, SOUTH SUDAN — Civil strife and unfavorable rains have further reduced crop production in South Sudan, contributing to a cereal deficit of 381,000 tonnes – 53% greater than in 2015 – and aggravating the already severe food shortages, two United Nations agencies said on April 5.

Cereal prices have shot up nearly five-fold since early last year, making it increasingly difficult for people to get enough to eat, according to a new joint Crop and Food Security Assessment Mission report  by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the World Food Program (WFP).

The crisis in South Sudan is marked by alarming levels of hunger. Some 5.8 million people, or nearly half of the country's population, are unsure where their next meal will come from, while the rate of severe food insecurity has now reached 12%, double the rate of one year ago.

"South Sudan is facing a deadly blend of conflict, economic hardship and poor rains. Together, they are worsening a hunger gap that we fear will force more people to go hungry and increase malnutrition," said Joyce Luma, country director for the WFP. "This report makes it clear that improving the food situation requires a peaceful resolution to the conflict."

"Food insecurity has spread to areas previously considered relatively stable, highlighting the cumulative impact of conflict, economic downturn and climactic shocks," said Serge Tissot, a representative in South Sudan for the FAO.

South Sudan's cereal shortfall is mainly the result of unfavorable rains in parts of the Bahr el-Ghazal and Equatoria states and disruptions to cropping activities caused by worsening insecurity.

South Sudanese are forced to cope with soaring cereal prices, which are driven by a combination of the sharp devaluation of the local currency and higher transport costs.

Links between cereal-producing areas - mostly in the Equatoria and Bahr el-Ghazal states - and main markets have become extremely difficult due to heightened insecurity, a proliferation of roadblocks and exorbitant ad hoc taxes levied on commercial transporters along major trade routes.

"Despite huge potential for agricultural production - more than 90% of South Sudan's land is arable - just 4.5% of available land was under cultivation when the country gained independence in 2011,” said Tissot. “Now, after over two years of civil war, this percentage has significantly decreased due to widespread insecurity, damage to agricultural assets and limitations in traditional farming methods.”

"Yet crop production is possible in the stable areas within conflict-affected states, and is more important than ever. Communities cannot rely on markets or aid deliveries for food, and therefore need to produce on their own," Tissot said. "FAO is working with farmers, fishers and herders, providing them with emergency livelihood kits, seeds, tools, animal health support and training."

The report makes a series of recommendations for immediate action to address hunger, strengthen domestic food production and reduce the food gap in 2016 and into next year.

Supporting the 2016 cropping season across all of South Sudan by ensuring access to agricultural and fisheries inputs; strengthening farmer and pastoral field schools; expanding veterinary campaigns aimed at keeping people's livestock healthy; and, in conflict-affected areas, assisting in re-establishing livelihoods whenever possible by helping in land preparation and access to inputs.

In 2016, FAO and WFP, together with their partners, will support efforts that aim to increase food availability, strengthen livelihoods and build resilience.

Under the 2016 Humanitarian Appeal, FAO appealed for $45 million to assist 2.8 million people with seeds, tools and other inputs to produce food and keep their livestock healthy, and strengthen the government's efforts to boost food security. The current funding gap is 16.1 million to meet this goal.